Recently, my 90-year-old mother complained about losing her memory.
“I forgot to take my Gingko biloba,” she said, referring to the leaf extract from the Chinese Gingko tree that allegedly promotes memory and concentration.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“I am worried,” she answered.
“You’re ninety,” I said. “You’re allowed to forget.”
The phone went silent as she gave me a look–a look I didn’t have to see to know was real. Out loud, all she said was, “I don’t want to forget.”
Of course, she is right. Who wants to forget? But forget we do. At the age of 52, I forget where I put my glasses. I forget why I open the refrigerator. I forget my children’s and pet’s names or at least confuse them. Frequently.
“It’s menopause,” my friends say as if giving it a name makes it any less annoying.
My mother’s forgetfulness is more serious. She forgets where she puts her checkbook. She forgets some, not all, of my dad’s doctor’s appointments. She forgets how to fill out forms and can’t retain technical information. Like me, her younger friends try to brush it off.
“It’s age,” we say as if the passage of time makes it any less alarming.
I know that my mother is afraid. She worries that her memory loss is a sign of something much worse. As the friend or family of any Alzheimer’s patient can tell you, the fear is real. Alzheimer’s Disease is a ravaging illness that affects over 5 million Americans, a number that’s likely to triple by 2050 as the baby boomers age.
Fortunately, scientists, doctors and researchers are working hard to understand the mechanism of the disease with the hope that new information will lead to better drug development and eventually a cure. In a recent Boston Globe article, researchers revealed that a new experimental treatment has slowed mental decline in patients with early stages of the disease by 34 percent. The drug, known as Solanezumab, and the clinical trial run by Eli Lilly, reinforced the idea that clearing abnormal proteins in the brains of these patients might be an effective treatment.
An element of this approach is the belief that 50 percent of certain critical brain cells may be already lost by the time a patient displays even mild cognitive impairment. Maria Carrillo, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association said, “This is the first time we see a slowing of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients with an anti-amyloid treatment.”
Amyloid is the abnormal protein found in Alzheimer’s patients that is believed to be a hallmark of the disease. A growing number of researchers think that the lack of effective treatment may be the result of drugs being tested only in people whose Alzheimer’s is advanced. By studying patients in the earliest stages, before the protein damages critical brain cells, they hope to bring new anti-amyloid based treatments to the market.
Unfortunately, not all anti-amyloid studies have produced results as positive as Solanezumab. The same article reported that a different drug, known as Bapineuzumab, produced no significant benefit in mental or physical functioning for roughly 2,400 patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease. But Dr. Reisa Sperling, the Alzheimer’s specialist from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who led the study, said the drug appears to have successfully cleared amyloid plaques from Alzheimer’s patients’ brains, and decreased one measure of nerve cell damage. She hopes to initiate a new study of 1000 adults over age 70 who have amyloid plaque revealed by brain scans and who are exhibiting very subtle cognitive problems that are typically reported in people years before they are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
All of which takes me back to my mother. Since it is too early to sign her up for Dr. Sperling’s new clinical study, I tried to reassure her.
“The Gingko is in your cabinet,” I said. “Where you keep the tea.”
She put down her cell phone. I heard her rummaging. She returned a few minutes later. “It’s not.”
“Maybe you drank it all,” I said.
“No, I bought a new box last week for my bridge game at the Senior Center.”
“So you brought it to bridge and left it there.”
“No,” she said, sighing. In my past, the ‘look’ was often accompanied by a sigh. “I distinctly remember taking it with me,” she added. “Your father likes to drink it too, you know. His memory’s much worse than mine.”
“So it’s in your house,” I said.
“Nope.” Her voice resonated with frustration, apparently at me since her next words were louder and more forceful. “I told you. I stopped to see Nancy. She’s laid up pretty bad with her hip. She’s….”
“Mom, Mom,” I said, holding up my hand even though she couldn’t see me. “What do you want me to do? Should I buy you another box?”
After a long pause, she said, “That would be nice.”
The link to the October 9, 2012 Boston Globe article by Kay Lazar is http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2012/10/08/new-hope-for-effective-treatment-slow-alzheimer-scientists-say/Jm640oLdJJEpq5CFSmdLKO/story.html.